Walkabout with Montrose: Byzantine Leaf Work

One of the most enduring motifs in pattern is that of entwining foliage. Leaves and vines have been popular since the Egyptians, and a study of ornament shows a complex history of intertwining vines and foliage of different species, often with animals, people, and mixtures of both, winding symmetrically and asymmetrically throughout the architectural detail, in painting, ironwork, stone and wood. In the late 1870’s the architectural style we call Queen Anne, and its close companion, the Romanesque Revival, introduced New Yorkers to an eclectic style of building which was a total reversal of the uniform rows of homes, popular in the Italianate and Neo-Grec styles. Roof lines and facades were irregular and unique, creating variety in groups of houses, with different shaped and sized bays and bows, peaked and flat roofs, and a variety of building materials used. One of the elements used to unite these groups was the use of carved stone ornament called Byzantine Leaf work. This stonework, first brownstone, but also later limestone, was used on entryways, window frames and lintels, medallions and friezes, and also on stairways, pediments, and anywhere else it could fit. Often intertwining vines and leaves were mixed with portraiture and/or a basket weave or Celtic knot pattern, this complex foliage pattern was seen as integral to the structure, not just decoration. The trend caught on, and lasted well over 40 years, being modified and simplified as years went on. The results still captivate today, and greatly add to the charm and desirability of the Queen Anne and Renaissance Revival blocks of Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Bed Stuy, Crown Heights, and other neighborhoods.

I confess to being totally entranced by this work. I am constantly amazed at the intricacies of the patterns, the interesting ways this ornament was used, and the superior quality of the work of anonymous artists and stone carvers. It was a staple in Montrose Morris' work. The invention of the pneumatic drill in the late 1870’s made it possible for this work to be massed produced relatively inexpensively, so that it was not confined only to the homes of the rich, but appears on smaller middle class homes built on spec, as well as on the early 8 unit flats buildings, and commercial buildings as well. The quality of the carvings is still the same – deeply etched leaf patterns, often combined with Celtic knots, portraiture, and animal figures, finely carved, some still as clean and precise as the day they were installed. Even painted, and thank goodness, most of it is not; the patterns have stood the test of time, and are there, still waiting for us to notice and admire. Check out more examples on Flickr.

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